Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel) stars alongside Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) in this compelling drama about love, loss and rebellion, set in north London’s Orthodox Jewish community. Directed by Academy Award winner, Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), and based on Naomi Alderman’s award-winning 2006 novel, it’s the story of how two women, united in grief, rediscover a powerful attraction – one that flies in the face of the community’s rigid rules and customs, and threatens to make them outcasts from everything they hold dear.
Learning that her estranged rabbi father has collapsed and died while delivering a sermon in his beloved Hendon synagogue, Ronit (Weisz) returns from Manhattan to the enclave she left several years earlier to pursue a career in photography. She arrives unexpectedly at the home of her childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), to a welcome from her uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner) and the other stern-faced mourners in attendance that’s anything but warm. However, there’s at least one person who seems happy to see her: Dovid’s wife, Esti (McAdams), an old friend with whom Ronit once had an illicit affair and who has since embraced her position as an attentive and submissive spouse.
As preparations are made for her father’s funeral, Ronit and Esti realise that the love they once had burns as strongly as ever – a revelation that not only imperils Esti’s position as wife and local schoolteacher, but also Dovid’s future as the rabbi’s obvious successor. Ronit, meanwhile, is shaken to discover her father not only cut her out of his will but also disowned her – which perhaps explains why she goes by Ronnie Curtis professionally. The stage is set for an unavoidable collision between passion and tradition in a film that asks searching questions about religion, transgression and individuality. Yet Disobedience is also a touching love story that transcends the cultural specificity of its setting, however authentically it is captured by Danny Cohen, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of The King’s Speech.
Convinced that an outsider’s eye was needed for this portrait of one of the UK’s most insular communities, Weisz and her producing partner, Frida Torresblanco, turned to the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, whose dating drama Gloria so impressed audiences in 2013. (He’s since remade it in English with Julianne Moore.) Lelio in turn partnered with acclaimed playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz to hone the material, a year-long process that had them spend the weekend at a Jewish hotel at one point as part of their research. McAdams read Alderman’s novel with her book club around the time of Rosh Hashanah, and visited kosher supermarkets near her Los Angeles home. Nivola, meanwhile, did his own preparation, having shabbat dinners with people he now calls “friends for life” in his determination to ensure that the “incredible warmth” of their hospitality was accurately depicted.
With discussions about bigotry and antisemitism at the core of our national debate, the time is certainly right for a film showing how Britain’s Jews, orthodox and otherwise, live their daily lives. Anybody who has yet to set foot inside a synagogue, meanwhile, will surely be tempted to do so by a film that embraces both the mystery and everyday normality of the Jewish faith. Disobedience transcends both its setting and subject to become a film that will connect with anybody who has ever felt constricted by unjust and repressive dictates. Not for nothing does McAdams say it is “a story that needs to be told”.
Q&A RACHEL WEISZ
What attracted you to this project?
I was looking for material to develop, as well as produce and act in. This was one of the first projects I found; it’s an incredible story, with two great female leads. What grabbed me about the novel was the theme of transgression in the modern world where there is almost nothing taboo any more. It took three years from when I optioned the book to when we started filming. I found the process of working with Sebastián really exciting.
It was an incredible journey transforming and mutating the book into its own entity.
What was it like working with Rachel McAdams?
She is a great actress and has a huge range. Esti is a gay woman in a loving, heterosexual marriage. In her religion, homosexuality is considered a sin, but she believes in God so she’s trying to do the right thing by her marriage. She is in a lot of psychological pain because of this decision, and Ronit’s return releases all her desire to be free.